March 11, 2013

Are We in Danger of Losing Sight of Urban Schools and their Libraries?

Categories: Educational Practice, Equity
hand grabbing old book from bookshelf titled Wind Sand and Stars Antoine De Saint

The rhetoric around libraries today is largely filled with enthusiasm in the digital media and learning world. And it probably should be: YOUmedia, makerspaces, and expanding digital opportunities for young people to learn and to grow are happening every day. However, right now, I have a problem with libraries.

More specifically, I have a problem with libraries in urban schools.

A Bit of Background
To say the library at the school I worked at in South Central Los Angeles faced challenges would be too gracious. One year, for example, the staff was greeted with the welcomed news that our school’s library would be remodeled and improved. We were told the library would be closed for a couple of months while construction was underway. Unfortunately, a couple of months lasted for the entire academic school year, leaving students without access to the library. Other years, the librarian faced the same hiring challenges that many of my friends faced. During my final year teaching, 2011-2012, the school’s librarian was let go. Librarians could attempt to vie for classroom positions in an exceptionally expensive and controversial process. The layoff of our librarian wasn’t surprising and letting go of exceptional educators was a general trend across the district, including my good friend Peter who was subsequently fired and rehired nearly every single year he worked for LAUSD until he finally moved to a new district. And, to the school’s credit, it was able to cobble together various campus aides so that the library was at least kept open (in limited hours) for students to check out books.

Even when the library was open, it never felt like an entirely welcoming space. Students often felt intimidated. Late fines, even minor ones, became significant barriers for students as they could not continue to use library services until these nominal fees were covered. The financial hardship in schools where nearly all students could qualify for free and reduced lunch meant that library fees languished across a student’s tenure at the school (As a brief aside: free and reduced lunch tends to be a stronger indicator of poverty. However, high school students tend not to turn in the lunch waivers as consistently as elementary school students, so the actual percentages tend to underrepresent these numbers in secondary schools).

Further, the staff in the library often frightened and harassed students. By my second year I was not alone in feeling that personnel in the space made going to the library untenable for many of my English Language Learners.

As I reflect on the notes above, I fret that I am perpetuating the stereotypes that may exist for readers about urban schools. And while I am disappointed with the library services in the school, I also feel it’s necessary to talk about the limited options this space offered for academic support, “connected learning,” or guiding lifelong reading habits.

Resiliency and Outrage
How do we develop resiliency in urban youth when it comes to reading? Maybe you’re thinking I could send students to the nearby public library? Not a bad idea except for the fact that it closed down due to citywide budgetary problems. And while Borders may not be around, there has to be a nice cozy Barnes & Noble where my students can plop down and spend some time (if not some cash on books), right? Not really; there aren’t many easily accessible bookstores in the urban neighborhoods millions of America’s students inhabit.

Like the aforementioned perpetually let-go Peter, I did what seemed like the only option in terms of supporting my students’ literacy practices: I bought them books. I tallied the receipts from one year’s book buying expenses and they topped out at over $8000. I don’t share this sum out of self-righteous martyrdom or hoping to be praised for valiant efforts. I share this sum because it should make you outraged. Is this really the best we can offer urban students when it comes to reading? We hope they get lucky enough for a teacher to invest in them? Peter lined his classroom walls with Ikea bookshelves students helped coerce into shape. He’d routinely drive to a bookstore and pretty much walk away with bags of the latest in Young Adult literature. And those books were devoured. The kids weren’t the problem. In the eight years I was in the classroom, I never met a student who didn’t like reading if given the right opportunity.

And that’s just the beginning of what libraries can be about. The tip of the iceberg. As I read about exciting developments like Cory Doctorow connecting what happens in libraries with hackerspaces, as I am privileged to have contributed to a recent issue of ALA’s Knowledge Quest guest edited by Buffy Hamilton and Ernie Cox that looked at participatory culture and learning, and as I get to see the exciting kinds of outreach happening in library spaces around my new home in Northern Colorado — I feel like we need to align efforts to make sure these opportunities are reaching the kids LAUSD failed to serve in this capacity (Full disclosure: my fiancé is a librarian…and–since she knows where I live–I should probably mention a pretty great one at that).

I used to think and hope that the disservice at my school was an anomaly. I tend to find a lot of inspiration in what’s happening in libraries these days and hoped that it was a fluke that the urban school I worked in matched the “soft bigotry of low expectations” when it came to library services.

Sadly, that’s not the case.

Last year, I helped design a new public high school in Los Angeles, the Critical Design and Gaming School. Since assuming my current job at Colorado State University, I can take no credit for its flourishing and incredible work: the accomplishments of this school and the two other sister schools it shares the Augustus Hawkins Learning Complex with are truly inspiring.

On Feb. 25, the school’s librarian sent the following message: “Sorry to leave you all, but I have been reassigned from Hawkins and at this point in time I am not your one-day a week Librarian.”

If you’re wondering if you read that correctly, you did: the librarian that was serving all three schools was on campus once a week. And now he’s not there at all. I am skeptical a replacement will be coming anytime soon.

In the first blog post I ever wrote for DMLcentral, I urged readers to think about partnering with and researching in schools. As libraries continue to push ways to engage youth and public in exciting and important ways, it is necessary for us as a research and educational community not to lose sight of schools. If you’re looking for the “digital” in this post for DML, it’s in the many libraries that are not urban public schools. I am sure there are schools that push against the two examples I share here. Please: share the powerful strategies needed to support urban schools on systemic not case-by-case contexts. What does it take for us to collectively push beyond the fiscal bureaucracy of districts and school board elections and give our students the opportunities they deserve?

Banner image credit: Patrick Feller